Snorkeling Through the “Bamako-sphere”

I made a promise to myself that I would not use this blog as a platform for moaning about the conditions in which I find myself living.  I don’t want to have to break that promise, but I do want to share a few realities with you.  I’m also of the opinion that if you are going to moan, then at least follow that up with some sort of solution. I found me a solution.

Typical phrases around our office/household include the following: “Is that the electricity off, again?”, “The water’s off, again.” Why is the internet down, again?”, “This lamb chop tastes like old ram.., wait a minute, it is old ram!”, “This rice is gritty” (actually grit in rice, not just really hard rice), “This chicken thigh has a whiff of something soapy.”, “The yoghurt’s gone off, and it’s still long before the best before date.” Etc. etc.

My biggest gripe is not whether or not we have water or electricity or even ADSL. These will come back at some point during the day.  We’ve never been without for longer than a few hours at a time. It’s not so bad, when you get used to it. No, my biggest gripe is about fresh air. Or, to be more accurate, the lack thereof.  If I could bottle up the Bamako “essence” and upload it via the internet, I would. You really don’t know it until you personally experience it.

To be fair, our office/accommodation is based in the heart of the industrial zone of Bamako.  We have stayed elsewhere in the city, far away from industry..and it makes little difference, if any.  Throughout the city there are open culverts either side of the main roads, which in the rainy season (~June-September) are very effective for draining all the water out to the river.  The only problem is that there are far more months in the year where there is not one single drop of rain.  The culverts become handy dumping grounds for all sorts of rubbish, and they stink.  On top of the whiff of rotting material, be it plant or animal derived, there are piles of rubbish that are set alight and left to smoulder.  The smell of burning plastic continuously lingers in the air.  I also can’t not mention the fish market. OH. MY. WORD. Indescribable.  You know when you are approaching one. No air filter known to man can prevent its stench from getting inside your vehicle. Ugh.  I haven’t yet managed to get a photo of one of the fish markets, I’ve been too busy concentrating on not asphyxiating.  In addition, I feel a bit conspicuous whipping out my muckle great big camera in such an obviously deprived setting.  It doesn’t feel right.  In these scenarios, I try some covert, drive-by snapping with my Iphone.  It’s got a cover on, so it is a little less obvious.

En route to the fish section

Then there is the dust factor.

During the dry months there is always a fine dust, from the Harmattan, in the air.  Apart from sneezing a whole lot more than I would normally, I have kind of gotten used to it!  However, the big issue is… “swishing”.  Swishing takes place twice daily, at sunrise and sunset.  Swishing is what I call the act of brushing up leaves from the dusty ground, creating mini dust storms that linger in the still air. Swishing happens all over the country. If you are anywhere near a village, never mind the capital city, you will encounter swishing.  There is no escape.  In the city, you can hide indoors and close any open windows. Brilliant.. In the field camp, however – we have no glass windows, only metal shutters. Not very effective for keeping anything out, dust and mosquitoes alike.

A quieter corner of the market

So, what is my solution to escape these sensory assaults?  I’ve taken on the tactics used when snorkeling. Yes indeed, do NOT breath through your nose. Ok, that’s only one solution. The other one is far more picturesque and serene;  The National Park/Botanical Gardens of Bamako.

A mere CFA1500 will get you in as a non-national.  It is much cheaper if you are a citizen, as it should be. The gardens were re-opened in 2008, after undergoing a re-vamp with some much-needed investment. There are some well established trees as well as newer additions, which are only just breaking out of the sapling stage.  Around the garden are miniature replicas of well-known landmarks and monuments around Mali.  One, I instantly recognised as the Great Mosque/Friday Mosque at Djenné.

The walkways are beautifully paved and in fact the gardens are a very common place for joggers, especially in the early evening when the temperature drops a little.  My husband and I also chose to explore the gardens in the early evening, and we were not disappointed.  As well as a Tea House and a small café where you can get yourself a cold beer, there is the Restaurant Balasoko. This was EXCELLENT.  Sitting up on a raised terrace, overlooking a water feature with the sounds of water trickling over a waterfall (artificial, but effective), we enjoyed the best meal we’ve ever had in a restaurant in Bamako. Admittedly, we haven’t ventured too far… but we’re getting there!  It is a tad more expensive than other venues around the city, but in our opinion it was most definitely worth it.

Restaurant Balasoko

In addition to the wonderful food, we were sitting outside in the fresh air. Lovely!  All the surrounding greenery filtered out every last speck of dust and smell from the city.  Also, instead of cars and wailing sirens, our ears were treated to the local traditional Mande music performed by two chaps in the background.  We like this place. We shall return..

Bamako – March, 2011


9 thoughts on “Snorkeling Through the “Bamako-sphere”

  1. It’s Mali …what do you expect? Get out of the city and you’ll get some fresh air. Get away from all those bikes. Take a short trip up the Niger from Mopti. Hike the Bandiagara. It’s Mali. You have electricity and DSL for part of the day. That is more than most Malians, isn’t it? I forget what hotel it is, but the older one downtown – they have a huge pool and garden area that is like an oasis in the desert. Don’t gripe, do something about it. Be happy with what you have.

    1. Yeah – I know – it does come across as a gripe, doesn’t it? – It would be easier if I wasn’t expected to be sitting at my desk all day – every day! It is always a different experience living somewhere as opposed to being a tourist/traveller with a bit more time on their hands for sight-seeing etc. (Or even if you work here and get your weekends to yourself to go and explore). However, not a lot of people get to visit/live in places like this and it would be remiss of me to “romanticise” it. Mali is what it is, you are absolutely right. We have been all the way up to Timbuktu (a few years ago now), but I have yet to reach the point of uploading photos and blogging about that trip. I am trying to find the good stuff. I don’t like to be pulled down by either my circumstances nor my own attitude. If I really didn’t like it, I’d have gone home a long time ago! However, I’m feeling thoroughly chastised right now!
      I think you are referring to the Hotel Mandé? -It’s located right on the banks of the River Niger? Or maybe the Sofitel? Anyway, thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts. I take it you have spent time here yourself? I haven’t checked out your blog yet – I shall do so now. Cheers, Lu

  2. Yes, I guess you are right when you put it that way (living vs. travelling). …and I’m glad you didn’t take my inital comment too harshly as, reading it for myself, it does sound a bit harsh, but wasn’t mean’t to be!!!

    I think it is the Sofitel. Yes, but not nearly as long as it sounds like you have. A little over a month. Travelling though, so a few days in Bamako, Mopti, Sevare, Timbuktu, Djenne, etc, etc. I guess you just have to make the most out of any situation and there are many who would be very, very envious of yours, so take solace the next time you sit back in that hot, fume filled air, next to the polluted river and think about people like me who would love to be in your position. Then laugh at how very little we really know…:)

  3. Sugar coating? ME? Never! I might be a sissy sometimes, but usually just a realist! I’m open to all comments – sugary ones or perceived harsh ones.. it’s all good, we’re all learning. And, there is always local beer. Where on earth would we be without that? Cheers John! – Lu

  4. I’ve been longing to go to Mali, one of the reasons is pretty cheesy: the capital bears my name, Bama-ko 🙂
    But it’s Timbuktu that I actually want to visit the most. Unfortunately the country is now having its turbulent time (not that I have plan to go to Mali in the near future).

    1. It would be brilliant to say you’ve been to a city that bears your name! I don’t think it’s cheesy (I’m sure I’ve done stuff along those same lines) – but I hear you about timing. Mali is most definitely not somewhere a tourist wants to be right now. Things may have calmed down a bit since the initial coup, but there is still a lot of uncertainty about Mali’s democratic future. Best hang on to your dreams for a little while longer.

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